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4 Nov 2002 : Column 78continued
Mr. Brazier: I do not know of any such category. Service families are not such an example. It is true, sadly, that the divorce rate in the Army and the Navy is higher than the national average, but it does not begin to compare with the staggering amount of separations among unmarried couples. It reflects the overstretch that the armed services suffer from at the moment. So I know of no such category, but if I did I would not support a ban on any particular ethnic group. Civil marriage does not ask that people have a particular religion, or anything else other than that they make a public commitment of permanence. That is all it asks. In the debates that took place in the 19th century about the introduction of civil marriage, I would have been on the side of those who wanted to introduce it, precisely because it provided an opportunity for people of no particular religious faith to make a public, legally binding commitment. That is all it involves, and it seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable criterion for adoption by two people who both want legal ties to the child.
Mr. Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is always generous in that respect. I want to clarify exactly what his position is. Is he arguing his absolutist stance in support of only married couples being allowed to adopt to the extent that, even if the only reason why an otherwise thoroughly suitable couple could not adopt was that there were religious impediments to their marriage, he would still rule them out?
I want to finish by making a wider point. In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham touched on the fact that there were several other ways in which we could broaden the pool. I want to mention two of them. These measures would introduce extra homes and provide extra opportunities for children in care to be adopted, not through a technicality involving a one-person adoption in a two-person home. They would provide real extra homes.
The first measure would involve a relatively small redrafting of the first clause of the Bill. We had an indication on the Floor of the House from the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), that he appeared to be in favour of such a redrafting, which would alter clause 1(5) so that the requirements on ethnicity and religion would be subservient to the provision in clause 1(3) that there should be no undue delay. Some of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham read out illustrated that many local authorities still take the view that they would rather not have a child adopted at all than let the child go to a family that does not match the ethnicity or religion of that child. That is the real scandal.
The second example involves contact. I think that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) mentioned this earlier, and I accept his point that a balance has to be struck. We have to consider the circumstances of the child in the birth family from which he or she was extracted. We must, of course, take account of the fact that the child may have made a real bond with an auntie or a granny, or someone else who played no part at all in the unhappy circumstances that led to the child being taken into care. We must also, however, make a reasonable assessment of what it is fair to ask an adoptive parent to take on. In my view, this can only be done after an adoptive couple has been lined up. It cannot, as those wretched advertisements suggest, be prejudged, if we want adoptive parents to take on damaged children.
I have not had the courage to adopt a child, but the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) has done so and she knows how much I admire her for sharing her experiences with us. If I had had the courage to take on those two little boys who I mentioned earlier, with all that history, and someone had said to meas the courts more and more frequently do these days; we even have advertisements from the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering that apparently prejudge these decisionsXAh, but we want there to be letter-box contact with the birth parents", I cannot believe that even the bravest adoptive parents in the land would stand for it. If someone is taking on really damaged children, they cannot be expected to accept mail from the parents who inflicted the damage; that sort of decision must be made later in the process. That is my second suggestion for widening the pool. Social workers in my own area, including the former director of social services, have told me of individual adoptions that would otherwise have gone through but did not do so because of court rulings on contact with the birth family.
I shall end where I came in: this is not the burning issue of the hour. The measure was not even in the original Bill. This is a good Bill, and I believe that the best way to look after these children is by extending the opportunities in the way that has just been described, rather than by going down the route of introducing fresh legal complexitiesbecause that is all that this isto adoption.
Ms Dari Taylor : This is the third time that I have spoken in a debate on the Adoption and Children Bill. Each time, it has been a pleasure, because everyone speaks with such warmth and commitment. Although I disagree with much of what the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, I totally applaud his integrity. It was a positive treat to listen to the powerful speech by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). It was seriously timely, and I see him as a Member who is making a commitment to a good Bill by reinstating amendments and by putting his career second. Well done!
This is an excellent Bill. It offers services, opportunities and controls, and, crucially, it says that the rights of children should be put first and foremost. It will speed up the process and introduce a gamut of services to provide support if breakdown in adoption is threatened. Most particularly and specifically, it will widen the pool of potential adopters. That is the essence of the debate for us all: how do we widen the pool of adoptive parents?
Many believe that because the Bill is good and because it will speed up the processes, those things will of themselves increase the number of potential adopters. I am sad to say that, although that will have an effect, it will not answer the charge. We want to widen the pool and increase the number of people who want to take on an adoptive child, but we must encourage them to accept that many such children have historiesseriously damaged historiesthat they will have to cope with. That is an enormous task, so, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, widening the pool is not straightforward. I suggest to him, however, that his argument to the House is based much more on confused prejudice than on careful thought.
The amendment that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) introduced, which I hope is reinstated by the House tonight and respected by the other place, aims most particularly at widening the pool, giving people the opportunity to have an equal, open and fair relationship with the children whom their partners may have adopted. Most crucially, in aiming to widen the pool, the amendment acknowledges a statement that has been made time and again in the debate, but I shall make it again: we are giving children an opportunity to live in a loving, stable family.
Sharing my experience with the House, let me say again that I worked in a care establishment. I shall not criticise it, but in no way, shape or form is it better to put a child of four, six or nine with other children in a dormitory where there is no mum, no special relationship and no shoulder to cry on so that the child who is crying can feel that he or she will be treated with sympathy. The answer that is given so many times is, XDon't be so sillyget to sleep." That is because one care worker has to look after 15 children who all need
Some children go from home to home. There is nothing wrong with the homes, but after 40 different ones, such children find it impossible to establish a relationship that is seriously stable and has controls to it. The children are shunted from one to another and believe that nobody wants or loves them.
Children in the care establishment where I worked looked at me and said, XMiss, do you think that, one day, someone will want me to live with them?" Does the House think that I ever had the confidence to say to a child, XThere is nobody there for you and nobody wants you. You're 14, and you have serious problems. It will take a serious family to take you on board, and you need a lot of support so that you can live in that family." I could not tell a child those thingsI did not have the courage.
The plain fact is that, every year, 2,000 children live the reality of that statementthere is no one there for them. Members are putting to the House their clear, committed ideas on married couples and saying that they are the best and the ideal. Nobody denies or doubts that, but often, we are not dealing with the best or the ideal. We live with reality. A constituent phoned me, as she knew that the debate was taking place today. She said, XI ask you to say one thing in that House of Commons: legislators, get real." I ask the House to do that.
I want to widen the debate, as we often believe that some groups in our communities will never accept that unmarried couples have the right to adopt or that unmarried gay couples, or gay couples that cannot marry, have no right to adopt. I refer to a letter from the Nottingham branch of the Catholic Children's Society, which, for 50 years, has been recruiting and placing children for adoption:
In the House of Lords debate, it was implied in much that was said that natural parents are best. I ask the Members of the other place who made such comments to accept that they are undermining the serious manner and the whole process of adoption. Natural parents listened to what one of them said: the view was that only birth parents could provide young children with
I found it quite disturbing that thoughtful people in the other place held such a view; I felt quite reduced by it. I am an adoptive parent of some 21 years, and I do not think that my love for my child has been less than that which any other person might have offered. The House knows me wellI think that my love has been less questioning and more evident than that of many others. I found that view seriously unacceptable.
For me, the Bill is about widening the group that could or would consider becoming adoptive parents. The scrutiny of potential adopters does not involve the marriage contract, but, importantly, it is rigorous. It attempts competently to define whether they could produce a stable home and a loving relationship. That is what we are here to achieve in widening the pool. I hope that the House accepts that reintroducing the amendment will help to achieve the loving home longed for by thousands of children.